Bipartisan Senate bill would ban social media algorithms for minors

In a bipartisan effort to “protect kids from harm,” an unlikely cohort of senators introduced a bill that would restrict minors' access to social media, as well as ban companies from using algorithms to recommend content to minors.

Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Chris Murphy (D-Conn), Katie Britt (R-Ala) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark) introduced the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act on Wednesday. The bill would set a minimum age of 13 to use social media sites, and would require parental consent and age verification for users under 18.

“The growing evidence is clear: social media is making kids more depressed and wreaking havoc on their mental health. While kids are suffering, social media companies are profiting. This needs to stop,” Schatz said in a press release. “Our bill will help us stop the growing social media health crisis among kids by setting a minimum age and preventing companies from using algorithms to automatically feed them addictive content based on their personal information.”

While some social media companies, like TikTok and YouTube, have launched kid-friendly versions of their platforms with content limits and parental controls, age verification is largely based on an honor system.

If the bill is signed into law, social media companies will be forbidden from using the “personal data” of any user to recommend content “unless the platform knows or reasonably believes that the individual is age 18 or older according to the age verification process used by the platform,” the bill’s text reads. Advertising to minors will still be allowed, as long as it’s “solely based on context,” and isn’t “targeted or recommended based on the personal data” of the user.

The bill’s language doesn’t outline how algorithms will be regulated. A representative for Schatz did not immediately respond to request for comment.

On Twitter, users have already raised concerns about the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act, and questioned whether the proposed regulations are even enforceable.

“Broadly speaking I’d say this: yes, Big Tech companies are harming kids,” Evan Greer, director of the digital rights nonprofit Fight for the Future, said in a tweet responding to Murphy. “We stop that by forcing those companies to change their business practices, not by kicking kids off the internet or taking away kids rights.”

Alejandra Caraballo, a civil rights attorney and clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, also responded to Murphy's tweet announcing the bill, in which he described prohibiting algorithms for kids.

“With all due respect Senator, but that is a terribly misinformed statement about social media technology. You might as well try saying you're banning javascript for teens,” she said.

Murphy decried social media companies as “100% committed to addicting our children to their screens” in a press release.

“The alarm bells about social media’s devastating impact on kids have been sounding for a long time, and yet time and time again, these companies have proven they care more about profit than preventing the well-documented harm they cause,” he said. “In particular, these algorithms are sending many down dangerous online rabbit holes, with little chance for parents to know what their kids are seeing online.”

Most social media policies already require users to be at least 13 years old, but enforcement is flimsy at best. Minors can easily fly under the radar by submitting a fake date of birth and checking off a box attesting to their supposed age. The bill would require social media platforms to take “reasonable steps beyond merely requiring attestation,” instead employing “existing age verification technologies” to ensure that users are the age they claim to be.

The bill’s language forbids companies from storing and using any information collected during the verification process “for any other purpose.” It instead proposes a free “Pilot Program,” regulated by the Secretary of Commerce, that would provide “secure digital identification credential to individuals who are citizens and lawful residents of the United States.”

The Pilot Program is supposed to “meet or exceed the highest cybersecurity standards” of consumer products, and the bill promises that only anonymized aggregate data will be stored.

This isn’t the first bipartisan effort to try and curb kids’ internet use. Last year, Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn) introduced the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), which would require sites to provide more parental control tools and limit the content that users under 16 can access. Dozens of civil liberties organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future and GLAAD, opposed the bill.

The Protecting Kids on Social Media Act follows a larger nationwide push for age verification online. This year, Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia and Utah passed laws requiring users to submit a government-issued ID in order to view porn sites. Eleven more states have proposed similar laws. But digital privacy advocates have expressed concerns over how age verification data is stored and used.

In the joint letter opposing KOSA, civil liberties organizations warned against age verification requirements.

“Age verification requirements may require users to provide platforms with personally identifiable information such as date of birth and government-issued identification documents, which can threaten users’ privacy, including through the risk of data breaches, and chill their willingness to access sensitive information online because they cannot do so anonymously,” the letter said. “Rather than age-gating privacy settings and safety tools to apply to only minors, Congress should focus on ensuring that all users, regardless of age, benefit from strong privacy protections by passing comprehensive privacy legislation.”